Skip to content

'We Can Beat This'

Bodhrán and Stick

The bodhrán is a newer instrument to Irish traditional music and its history is somewhat unclear.

It became popular in the 1950s as traditional music was in decline and when Ceoltas Ceoiltóirí Éireann was established (1951) to address this, promoting the music and musicians.

Prior to this it does have clear associations with similar, but perforated skin trays used for the winnowing of grain (separating the grain from the chaff) of which there are many in the NMI’s agricultural collection, with the added difference that they do not have a criss-cross support frame opposite the tightened animal-skin side.

It is also used as a percussion instrument by the Wren Boys. The Wren Boys were bands of men and boys, who went from house to house on St. Stephen’s Day, beating it as a drum. They carried a dead wren in a cage or a representation of one. The clever wren in folklore is known as the ‘King of all Birds’ as he flew the highest of all, by hitching a lift on the back of the unsuspecting eagle. The Wren is also attributed to have betrayed St. Stephen and is sacrificed on 26th December while the costume-attired band entertained neighbours, collecting money and party provisions. The bodhrán, as a sounding drum alerting arrival, has connections to similar folk traditions and festivals throughout Europe, and often banging drums announced arrival and warded off evil spirits.

Ó Dónaill in his Irish dictionary, gives two meanings for Bodhrán, the first relating to ‘bodhar’(deaf), and bodhrán being a negative name for someone who is deaf. His second meaning is a winnowing tray or a (kind of) tambourine.

The word tambourine is so closely linked to the bodhrán and they are similarly made, albeit the internationally-known tambourine can be smaller and have metal discs slotted around the shallow drum edge for creating a jingling sound. It though, can be headless and just shaken, whereas the bodhrán always has a skin side.
This bodhrán unusually, has some jingles on the side of the rim, where two perforated half-pennies have been inserted.

In the Schools’ Collection of Irish folklore from the late 1930s, there are thirty references to the  word ‘bodhrán’ from across thirteen counties. It is continuously recorded as one of the Irish words adopted and consistently used in English-speaking districts. In most of the references it refers to the agricultural tool or relates to deafness. Only one reference from Ballyduff, Co. Kerry refers to it as being a musical instrument used by the Wren Boys.

As a late comer to the Irish traditional music scene, the bodhrán became very popular through being incorporated into the instrument repertoire of musicians such as renowned Cork composer, Seán Ó Riada. Although accepted by musicians, it was not until 1973 that it featured in competition at the Fleadh Cheoil, when the first All-Ireland bodhrán championship was awarded to John O’Dwyer from Leeds.

The stick is often referred to as a cipín, which is also the word for a small stick or piece of kindling. Other names include beater and tipper. They can be straight pieces of strong timbers such as ash and holly, but often are bulbous at one or both terminals. Nowadays, they are generally lathe-turned pieces but before this, hand-carved ones like the pictured 1955 stick from Gortnacross, Co. Limerick were popular.

It is often maligned, featuring in humorous songs and jokes, and described by David G Such as ‘The Black Sheep of Traditional Irish Instruments’ and sometimes bodhrán players have not been made feel welcome at music sessions as beginners are often considered to play too fast or too loud. ‘A bodhrán is an instrument which is best played with an open pen-knife’ is often credited as having been said by famous musicians.

We would have no bodhráns in the National Collection if this enduring object did not fight to be considered as one of our most notable Irish traditional instruments.


Bodhrán and Stick is located at:
Country Life

Previous artefact:

Peregrine Falcon

Next artefact:

Raffle Ticket

Sign up to our newsletter

Keep up to date

Receive updates on the latest exhibitions